Writing a Novel the Wodehouse Way

by Victoria Madden

I recently found a series of fascinating interviews in The Paris Review, with half a century of famous writers discussing How They Wrote: a treasure trove of advice and inspiration for the aspiring author. The one that most struck a chord, though, was the interview with our beloved Plum in 1975 by Gerald Clarke.

Wodehouse returned to America in 1914, following earlier, brief visits – payment for his short stories being considerably more than that offered in England – and it was there that he found success in the musical comedies that would stylistically define the rest of his writing career. He’d first contributed a lyric to a London show in 1904, but his first substantial contribution, in 1914, had been a flop. Over in New York, Miss Springtime, his first outing with dream team Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, was a success; a year later their musical Oh Boy was a smash hit and things really took off. (The PG Wodehouse Society (UK) lists 13 musical comedies between 1917 and 1927 to which Wodehouse contributed virtually all the lyrics and the Internet Broadway Database lists an almost continuous run of work between 1916 and 1935, with five of his shows running simultaneously in 1917.)

This considerable experience in writing for the theatre comes across very clearly throughout the interview and his comments on how he tackles the writing process for his novels remind me strongly of my own experiences of script-writing workshops. He spends a lot of time thinking before he starts and makes notes, usually compiling about four hundred pages with everything blocked out in advance: ‘After that it’s just a question of detail.’ He talks about ‘having a scenario’, ‘where the comedy comes in’, ‘where the situations come in’ and ‘splitting it up into scenes’. He goes back and revises all the time, moving ‘scenes’ to different areas to improve the flow. These are all basic tenets of script-writing.

Some time ago I had an idea for a historical detective series. As usual, I worked out all the characters back stories, put together a detailed outline and drafted various ‘chapters’ where the linking descriptions were essentially stage directions and actors’ notes. I knew all the time I was doing it that I just didn’t have the mind set, or technical ability, needed to turn it into a novel and eventually put it to one side.

Wodehouse’s description of how he writes, seems to be showing me a way out of my novelist’s dilemma. It is out of the question that I will ever be able to write a ‘proper’ novel, I know that and, reluctantly, accept it. But would I be able to write a novel the ‘Wodehouse way’? The idea is both intriguing and fascinating. Much of what he says resonates with my training in scriptwriting and my own strengths as a writer.

When asked to give some tips for the would-be humorous writer, Wodehouse’s immediate response is ‘always get to the dialogue as soon as possible’. He recommends speed: getting straight into the story and not putting off the reader with large amounts of prose, particularly at the beginning. He advises that a successful humorous novel is dependent on its ‘high spots’; that a writer should ask ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and ‘does the plot work as a story?‘. Wodehouse also says – very enlightening to me, this – that he goes on the principle of seeing the characters in his novels as actors in a play: it is necessary to keep the ‘big names’ happy, by making sure they have interesting situations and lots of lines. (I’m reminded here of Ben Affleck’s outstanding portrayal of Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love: (fortissimo) ‘What, is the play? And what, is my part??) This take on things is immediately illustrated when Wodehouse describes his initial mention of Jeeves, then a minor character: ‘His first entrance was: “Mrs Gregson to see you, sir,”‘ and ‘He only had one other line.’.

All this is awakening a faintly, tremulous, sense of hope, that, maybe, possibly, I could write a novel after all. Wodehouse recommends having ‘as little stuff in between [the dialogue] as possible’ and it is the ‘stuff in between’ with which I’ve always had the most difficulty: the tedious descriptions of place; the interminably boring interior monologues. (Very few people are Virginia Woolf.) Other remarks, too, chime with my own habits: ‘The first time you read a book, you don’t read it at all carefully; you just read it for the story. You have to keep rereading.’ ‘If I’ve got a plot for a novel worked out and I can really get going on it, I work all the time.’ For the first time, I am wondering if writing a novel is not the stuff of agonised, un-realised yearning followed by self-loathing and despair, but actually a concrete possibility; and that turning to what is disparagingly known as ‘light fiction’ and to let my ‘script-writing voice’ do the talking, instead of trying to emulate those writers I could never be, could well be an un-looked for way forward.  The idea is simultaneously un-nerving and exciting.

(One of the useful things about blogging, and this is something I keep returning to, is how much it helps you as a writer. From my own explorations, the blogosphere is nothing more or less than an international writers’ workshop, with an intelligent, well-read and articulate community, willing to comment on your work and posting their own for you to do likewise. It’s no wonder that some of these have gone on to publish printed work. A blogger I call in my own mind ‘the Accessible Academic’ has written an interesting review at ‘Tales From the Reading Room’ comparing two books that made this transition.)

Wodehouse himself took a turn at script-writing, with two spells at MGM in the 1930s. After riffing on how much he was paid for doing so little to a newspaper reporter during an interview – an early display of the naivety that would have long-lasting effects later on in his life – he was sacked from his first contract when the newspaper (naturally enough to most people) published this tidbit. Although he was clearly forgiven, there is no record of anything he wrote for the movies making it onto the screen.

Given all this, it’s surprising that television adaptations of his work should have been, in the main, so unsuccessful. I think the problem lies in the political hang-ups of those involved – there is generally a strong sense of embarrassment; that they feel they have to justify the focus on Wodehouse’s upper class characters to viewers in some way, by either heavily labouring their foibles or making them over-blown or grotesque – the dreadful BBC Blandings being a perfect example. (You could make a case here that the BBC is not fulfilling its diversity mandate properly: because upper-class people are not only seriously under-represented on the television, but seriously misrepresented too.)

The most successful adaption, to my mind, was the Jeeves and Wooster series, which allowed Wodehouse’s characters to reveal themselves through his dialogue and the situations he’d created rather than spoiling ‘sunlit perfection’ by imposing an outside view and later values.  Although even that lost its way a little in later series’.

The thing I like the most in the Paris Review interview, is that Wodehouse is completely, engagingly, self aware of what works, what doesn’t, and what his strengths and weaknesses are; there is no nauseating false modesty on display. He agrees with the interviewer that his books are funny, that his use of Galahad is ‘fine’; he re-reads his own books and is ‘rather surprised that they’re so good’. At the same time, he states ‘I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything but the sort of thing I do write. I couldn’t write a serious book.’ and of a book by A. A. Milne: ‘It’s not the sort of thing I can write myself, but as a reader I enjoy it throughly.’

He takes on board constructive criticism: ‘I know when it isn’t as good as it ought to be.’, citing a journalist who’d described his latest book as ‘dangerously near self parody’, a slip he intended to correct in the next one; but blithely ignores the rest ‘You always feel that you can’t please everybody.’ He is serenely matter of fact in his recognition that the world of which he writes is out of date in the late 1970s and his acknowledgement that the types he portrays no longer exist.

The producer Zeigfeld, he of the famous Follies, with whom Wodehouse worked on Show Boat, said that he envied Wodehouse his attitude, which Clarke sums up as ‘he simply ignored what was worrisome, bothersome, or confusing in the world around him.’ Wodehouse was fortunate in having firstly a sister-in-law and then a wife who would deal with all the bother and do his worrying for him: something of which most of us, as we’ve discussed over at Plumtopia, can only dream.  With the unpleasantnesses of the external world kept at bay by others and his own happy temperament, Wodehouse was free to wander the world he’d created: his escape, solace and refreshment and one to which we too, when bogged down by life’s bothersome bits, can always turn.